The Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Kobe, Japan 

The previous article discussed the train ride to Vladivostok and the ship they took to Nagasaki, Japan the end of Shevat, 5701 (February 1941). In Nagasaki, the refugees found many exciting things—after all, this wasn’t Europe and the war situation had not had the same effect on the people. 

Firstly, the people were different. The way they dressed was foreign to the Europeans, and there was also a great deal of difference in the way they conducted themselves.

Additionally, the streets and stores were different. Markets had food, especially fruit and vegetables. This was unlike what they had seen or experienced in Poland, Lithuania or Russia. And stores had clothing—racks were filled with suits and jackets and belts. These were rare communities where the refugees had come from.

From Nagasaki, they took a train to Kobe, where they were pleasantly surprised at the Jewish community. It was organized with a community center, a shul and with offices. The community helped the Lubavitchers with all of their necessities including housing and food.

The community initially housed them in a hotel (where the custom was to sleep on mats and eat close to the floor), until they located a suitable 2-story building to rent for the Lubavitchers. (Other groups were similarly accommodated.) Another building served as the Yeshiva. On the upper floor, lived the Amshinover Rebbe, Reb Shimon Kalish. On a personal note, Reb Shimon is the person who sent my father a.h. to Lubavitch, in Otwosk, and he remained close to Lubavitch, especially the Yeshiva, during the war. The Friedieker Rebbe advised the bochurim that if communications failed, they should ask the Amshinover for advice. The Amshinover Rebbe had his own sefer torah, and Reb Avrohom Yitzchok Garfinkle remembers reading the Torah for him. Generally, he participated with the Yeshiva’s minyan.

The refugees encountered interesting predicaments in the Kobe Yeshiva. The bochurim, about 30, were used to a different diet than the indigenous Asian foods they were being introduced to. Instead of wheat flour, they had rice flour, and rice became their staple.

Since they had no cooks, the bochurim took turns, in rotation, in the kitchen. Being unfamiliar with rice, the “chef-for-a-day” bochur felt that about one cup of rice per student would be adequate. Needless to say, the entire Bais Medrosh was inundated with cascading rice and water.

The weather was hot and humid. It was so humid that once a fish dinner they had prepared for Shabbos, spoiled. (They had no iceboxes, and this was before Japan had refrigeration in homes.)   It wasn’t just sour; it was spoiled to the point of serious poisoning. The next morning, whatever few students hadn’t suffered food poisoning were helping Dr. Seligson pump the stomachs of those poor young men who had become seriously ill.

For Pesach the situation was also difficult. Where could they find hand-made wheat matzo in Kobe? The answer was not to be found in Kobe, but in Shanghai. Reb Meir Ashkenazi, the Rav of Shanghai, sent matzos to the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Kobe.

Several questions on Torah law arose while the refugees were in Japan. One issue, the location of the International Date Line according to the Torah Law ,challenged Torah scholars worldwide.

The majority opinion felt that the calendar and the days of the week, as observed in Japan, was correct and that one could satisfy the Shabbos laws by keeping Shabbos on the local Saturday. A minority opinion felt that due to the location of the date line, Shabbos should be observed on the local Sunday.

The Mirrer Yeshiva was advised to keep Shabbos on the local Sunday from a celebrated world recognized Poseik. Because of this, my father related to me, that even though Lubavitch kept Shabbos on the local’s Saturday, for several weeks they put on Tefillin on Shabbos afternoon, because of the “suffeik” – the question. After being informed that most of the Rabbonim disagreed with that opinion, he ceased the Shabbos tefillin practice. Nonetheless, many refused to violate any Shabbos Torah prohibitions on the local Sunday because of the other opinion, in addition to keeping Shabbos on the local Saturday.

The Mirrer Mashgiach, although his Yeshiva kept Shabbos on the local Sunday, came to the Lubavitcher Yeshiva on Saturday to listen to the Shabbos Torah reading.

As we discussed previously, the bochurim came to Kobe with the intention of going to America. The visas that were arranged to be picked up in Moscow, and later to be picked up in Kobe, became null and void. The US Department of State changed its policy, and said that anybody who had family in war-torn Europe would not be allowed to enter America. Their travel visas became useless. So, while they were learning in their Yeshiva, the transit visas for Japan were soon to expire. They received an extension to stay longer than 90 days, but that was not enough to see America change its mind. 

And Japan wanted the refugees out. And they knew where to send them: Shanghai, an “international city” which would reject no refugees. Meanwhile, On the 23rd of Av, corresponding to August 16, 1941, the Rebbe telegraphed the Jewish Community to try to convince the Japanese officials to let them delay their departure as he was trying to get them admitted to the Americas.

The Rebbe tried to get visas for the bochurim to go to Canada or Paraguay for admission, but those options were cut off. They knew that they wanted to be near the Rebbe in America, but their next destination was to be Shanghai, China. Only nine bochurim were later to leave Shanghai for Montreal, Canada in November of 1941. There, they established the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Montreal. (In the summer of 1946 the remaining bochurim came to America.)

When they knew they were destined to be relocated to Shanghai, they actually left in Elul, to avoid yet another serious matter of Jewish law. With the question of the location of the “halachic” international dateline, and with the Torah prohibition of eating on the quickly approaching Yom Kippur. In Shanghai, there was no question concerning which day to observe, so on a Friday afternoon in Elul, they arrived in Shanghai, and they were warmly greeted with open arms at the port by Rabbi and Mrs. Ashkenazi. They took them in, and all of the other refugees, for the remainder of the war.

I would like to thank R’ S. Goldman, R’ A.T. Landau, and R’ A. Garfinkel, for their help with this article.